Got up and voted

First-time voters are "just great," political reporters are Cone heads

click to enlarge IN THE ZONE: Exactly 50 feet from the polling place's - doors, a traffic cone indicated the "OFFICIAL - POLITICAL ACTIVITY AREA." - Scott Harrell
Scott Harrell
IN THE ZONE: Exactly 50 feet from the polling place's doors, a traffic cone indicated the "OFFICIAL POLITICAL ACTIVITY AREA."

On Tuesday, the 31st of August, I did two things I've never done before.

I went and covered an election.

And I voted in it.

I don't mean I voted in the Pinellas County primary for the first time; before last Tuesday, I'd never cast a ballot as a registered voter before.

I'm 32 years old.

Pathetic, huh?

I had no intention of ever registering, and recited the same reasons for my decision that we've all heard from various armchair-sociologist associates. That, contrary to the propaganda, my vote does not count. That if my vote did count, it wouldn't matter who I voted for, because all politicians are the same politician, really. That the cogs of American government no longer turn in the interests of the populace, so I refuse to participate in the priming of such a machine until the necessary repairs are made, or at least until we find the guy who knows which replacement parts to order.

Then came a presidential election that, I honestly believe, involved an insultingly blatant degree of manipulative fuckery. And the job at the Planet, the first place I've ever worked where casual political conversation consists of more than half-baked assumptions based on half-heard opinions. And the War on Terror, which, when it shifted so suddenly to focus on Iraq, inspired a vaguely obsessive and thoroughly depressing headline-hunting habit that continues to this day.

And then, of course, getting out the vote (or GOTV, as they say in political circles) became more fashionable than black lace at a stripper's funeral.

GOTV was everywhere. It got so I couldn't go to the bathroom in a 7-Eleven without having to step around the voter-registration sign-up table set up between the mop bucket and the rack of soft-drink syrup. So, after months of edging up to it, I registered in February, at one of approximately 3,174 live-music events offering the opportunity that month.

I'm not saying I caved in to the pressure. I'm just saying that I'm American, and if you make something easy enough, and it doesn't involve, say, being kicked in the groin, Americans will eventually shrug and do it.

The lobby of the Fifth Avenue Baptist Church served as the polling location for West St. Pete's Precinct 228. I arrived just after noon, hoping to soak in the full-on lunchtime election-day experience — the heat, the line, the grumbling about whoever was currently holding up the line, etc. But only two other voters were present; we were outnumbered by both the venerable volunteers and the voting machines themselves. The touch-screen units stood in a circle, facing outward, their dark privacy hoods and molded plastic casings gleaming newly.

Smiles, greetings and small talk were aimed in my direction as I checked in. I told everybody I was voting for the first time ever. Everybody told me that was just great.

Using the touch-screen machines was efficient to the point of letdown — it takes longer to withdraw $20 and get a mini-statement from one of your own bank's ATMs. (You even get a card to feed them, just like a cash machine.) I prolonged the moment by realizing I didn't know who half the people running for a few of the judicial and municipal positions were, but my rite of passage was still all too brief.

When I walked away from the black box, a couple of volunteers swooped in considerately to guide me toward the exit; post-vote loitering was definitely frowned upon. As we approached the glass doors, another lone voter entered. I asked no one in particular if there was going to be a lunch rush.

"We get a little flurry around lunchtime," said a courteous barrel-chested man with the bearing of a retired military officer, "but most people come when they get off work."

I identified myself as a reporter, and asked if it would be OK if I came back after normal work hours to ask some questions. Many looks were exchanged, and he told me it was fine, but if I wasn't "doing my business," I'd have to stay — he pointed at something in the parking lot — "out there."

Upon leaving, I discovered what it was he had indicated.

It was The Cone.

And so, five hours later, I was back, standing next to The Cone. The Cone was tiny and orange, with a little sign on top that said "OFFICIAL POLITICAL ACTIVITY AREA." The Cone was enigmatic; its purpose escaped me. But the guy had pointed, so there I stood.

Business started picking up. I asked a neatly dressed man on his way inside if he'd like to answer some questions. He looked at me strangely, then agreed, identifying himself as Assistant State's Attorney Jason Steadman.

"[Primaries are] very important," he said. "It affects who runs in the general election, and in some races decides who gets into office."

I was too intimidated to ask him about The Cone.

Cars pulled into the parking lot with increasing frequency. When an election volunteer came out for a smoke, I abandoned The Cone and joined him in the shade. He asked to be called only Robert, and told me this was his first time volunteering, calling the experience "pretty neat." Robert had been there all day.

Volunteer clerk Jeannene Meisman came outside to remind me politely that I wasn't supposed to interact with voters on their way into the building. That's why they're called "exit polls," I guess. I told her I'd voted for the very first time earlier.

"That's just great," she replied.

We chatted about The Cone. Apparently they'd had to measure off exactly 50 feet from the polling place's doors with a piece of string, but beyond that, the actual function of The Cone remained shrouded in mystery.

More voters arrived. Kim Harper cast her ballot in record time.

"I'm usually familiar with who all the candidates are — that's why I'm so fast in there," she said.

As I thanked the volunteers and said my goodbyes, an overseer from the Pinellas County Board of Elections — one of the so-called "floaters" — was leaving to check in at the next precinct over. I told her I had voted for the very first time.

She told me that was just great.

It was just great. Because less than 20 percent of Pinellas' registered voters took part in the primary. Which means I'm now part of an elite group: that irritatingly upright minority that's always pestering the majority about their lapses in civic duty.

So get on it.[email protected]

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